HMS GORGON & THE ‘BOTANY BAY ESCAPEES’

‘I confess that I never looked at these people [Botany Bay escapees] without pity and astonishment. They had miscarried in a Heroic struggle for liberty after having combated every hardship and conquered every difficulty’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench on HMS Gorgan at Cape Town, March 1792 – Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson 1961

1791 – 28 March, Sydney Cove: Ironically the hustle and bustle surrounding HMS Gorgan’s arrival at Sydney (15 March 1791) helped divert attention when, at midnight on 28 March 1791 convicts William and Mary Bryant, their children Charlotte three (3) years and baby Emanuel with seven (7) convict companions, oars muffled on a stolen boat – Governor Phillip’s cutter – slipped silently out of Sydney Harbour and set course for Timor.

‘In writing of the recruitment of criminals into the armed forces, Stephen Conway observed, ‘It was still found necessary periodically to clear both the putrid and congested gaols and the equally overcrowded and insanitary hulks’. Conway, cited in Alan Frost, Botany  Bay Mirages, Melbourne University Press, 1994.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: A convoy of eleven (11) ships with a complement of 1500 souls, one-half convicted criminals, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from England bound for Botany Bay to invade and occupy the island continent of New Holland, now Australia.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: After a voyage of eight (8) months the fleet reached Botany Bay in mid-January 1788.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: Three (3) days later La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, (2) French ships commanded by Jean-Francois La Perouse, arrived off Botany Bay but bad weather forced them south to shelter at Sutherland Point.

1788 – 24 January, Port Jackson: At dawn Captain Phillip quit Botany Bay and sailed nine (9) miles (14) km north to Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson where Phillip raised the Union Jack .

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: By late afternoon 26 January 1788 the remainder of the fleet lay at anchor in Sydney Cove.

1788 – 7 February,Sydney Cove: With military ‘pomp and circumstance’ on February 7th 1788 and, without consent of the First Australians, Captain now Governor Phillip claimed British sovereignty over New Holland. Dominance over the southern oceans guaranteed Britain safe alternate sea routes to and from India and China in peace and war.

‘Here a thousand Ships of the Line may ride in perfect Security…My Lord, I think that perseverance will answer every purpose proposed by Government’. Governor Phillip to William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, Marquis of Lansdowne. Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall and John Thompson, Oxford University Press, 1998

The permanent military and naval bases Britain established at Sydney were to be manned, as was traditional at that time, by a combined force of troops and convicts taken from England’s ‘putrid gaols and insanitary hulks’. See: Three Amigos + One

‘In determining the daily rations…no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] convicts…the standard adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, ed. W. Hugh Oldham, Library of Australian History, Sydney 1990

1788 – 10 March, Botany Bay: La Boussole, with gallant La Perouse at the helm, led L’Astrolabe out of Botany Bay for the voyage home to France but were never seen again.

As for the Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ they were abandoned and left to starve 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve From January 1788 to July 1790

‘Without distinction’ the first reduction in the ‘standard ration of troops serving in the West Indies’ was made on 13 March 1788.

1788 – 13 March, Sydney Cove: ‘The commissary made a deduction of 12 lb [5.5kg] per hundred weight [50.8kg] of [salted] beef and 8 lb [3.5kg] in the hundred weight of [salted] pork (i.e.100 lb of beef must be cut into 28 pieces, and 104 lb of pork cut into 56 pieces)’. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal

1788 – April: An inventory of livestock revealed; ‘ 7 horses, 2 bulls, 5 cows, 29 sheep, 19 goats, 74 pigs, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens and 5 rabbits’. Collins. ibid.

1788 – 15 May: Both bulls and all but one (1) cow wandered off into the bush; separated from the herd the lone animal went mad and was shot.

1790

1790 – January, Sydney: ‘Here on the summit of the hill [South Head] every morning from day-light until the sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon.

We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England in which long time no supplies…from the intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth’. Watkin Tench. ibid.

1790 – 6 March, to Norfolk Island:  Governor Phillip with starvation hammering at the door, in order to save the Sydney settlement from complete disaster, evacuated 50% of the white population to Norfolk Island.

HMS Sirius and HMS Supply with convicts, a detachment of marines with their commander, the rebellious  Major Robert Ross as Lieutenant Governor, sailed for Norfolk Island in early March. See: Take Two – Rules of Engagement

HMS Sirius was to continue onto to China and arrange a rescue.

1790 – 19 March: Sirius hit submerged rocks on 19 March 1790, pounded by ‘surf which on every part of the coast beats against the shore with great violence’, she broke up and sank.

1790 – 29 March, Sydney: HMS Supply was back in Sydney by the end of March 1790 with the terrible news, Sirius was lost and gone all hope of a China rescue.

‘Our hopes are now almost vanished’. Reverend Richard Johnson, First Fleet Chaplain.

1790 – 17 April, to Batavia: With Sirius lost, Governor Phillip had no alternative but send HMS Supply to Jakarta.  Lieutenant Henry Ball RN was to buy tons of urgently needed foods and charter a Dutch vessel to bring them to Sydney as soon as possible

1790 – 3 June, South Head:  Six (6) weeks after Supply sailed for Jakarta – ‘Flag’s Up – Pull away, my lads! she is from Old England’.

1790 – 3 June: Lady Juliana;with London on her stern’ sailed through Sydney Heads on 3 June 1790. Although the Lady Juliana brought few supplies she broke the ‘misery and horror’ of extreme isolation and mind-bending  uncertainty.

A convict transport with two hundred and twenty-six (226) female prisoners, Juliana was first of four (4) vessels that made up ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ – a second fleet

1790 – 26/27/29 June:  Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize the fleet’s death ships – reached Sydney towards the end of June 1790 with mainly male convicts.

Of approximately one thousand (1000) mainly male prisoners embarked in England, 25% died on the voyage and a further 15% after landing in Sydney. Most survivors never fully recovered physically, mentally or morally. See: Britain’s Grim Armada – Dancing With Slavers – The Dead And The Living Dead

The fleet also brought one hundred and fifteen (115) officers and men of the New South Wales Corps. One of their number,  Lieutenant John Macarthur, would act as the catalyst that brought about the near destruction of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

1790 – October: HMS Supply, with a severely depleted crew, returned from Batavia in mid October 1790.

1790 – 17 December, Sydney: Rapture – Waaksamheyd  the Dutch vessel chartered at Jakarta by Lieutenant Henry Ball arrived in mid December 1790 bringing tons of food and medicines and a change in the dynamic of the settlement.

Convict William Bryant approached Deter Smidt, Waaksamheyd’s master, with an escape plan.

Bryant a fisherman from Cornwell and, well acquainted with the ways of the sea, found Smidt supportive. The Dutch captain agreed to supply charts, compass and quadrant, guns and ammunition Most important of all Smidt provided Will Bryant his projected departure date so the group could cover their escape.

1791

1791 – 15 March, Sydney: HMS Gorgan, a converted warship, reached Sydney Cove in mid-March 1791. Captain John Parker RN was under orders to discharge his human cargo quickly and return to England with marines of the ‘troubled’ Sydney garrison.

These troops from the military arm of the naval service had been integral to Britain’s invasion of New Holland in 1788. They  were overdue for repatriation and overjoyed at the prospect of returning home.

1791 – 28 March, Sydney: In the excitement the eleven (11) ‘Botany Bay escapees’, as they became known, slipped silently out of Sydney Harbour at midnight on 28 March 1791 and made for Timor.

At dawn Deter Smidt guided Waaksamheyd down the harbour and set course for Norfolk Island to take on Captain John Hunter RN and the Sirius crew, one hundred and thirty (130) naval personnel, for their return to England.

Meanwhile Captain Parker prepared HMS Gorgan for a quick turn-around however one-half of the marines were still stranded on Norfolk Island two (2) weeks sailing-time away. HMS Supply was sent to ferry many of them to Sydney.

1791 – May, Norfolk Island: Queen, a convict ship from Ireland after discharging her cargo of prisoners Queen was dispatched to Norfolk Island to retrieve all remaining marines including Major Robert Ross their rebellious commander.

1791 – 13 December, Sydney: With the exception of Marine Lieutenant George Johnston and a few rank and file, the entire  battalion including wives and forty-six (46) children, began boarding HMS Gorgon.

1791 – 19 December, Africa: Gorgan sailed for England on 19 December 1791 with Captain Parker setting a course for the Cape of Good Hope via Cape Horn.

The voyage proved difficult ferocious winds broke spars and masts, ripped sails, snapped ropes and bones. As Gorgon sailed deep into the southern oceans she encountered a maze of ‘islands of ice’ all on board endured freezing conditions.  

1792

1792 – 8 February, Cape Horn: Gorgon rounded Cape Horn early in February 1792.

1792 – 11 March, Cape of Good Hope: A month after surviving the rigours of Cape Horn a relieved Captain Parker dropped anchor in Table Bay, Cape Town. Parker again hoped for a quick departure but once more it was not to be.

1792 – 12 March, Cape Town: A day later – 12 March –  Horssen a Dutch vessel arrived from Batavia. On board was Mary Bryant with Charlotte her daughter who, a year earlier (March 1791) had escaped from Sydney Cove.

Then in quick succession came two (2) more Dutch vessels Hoonwey and Vreedenberg with more surviving escapees. For much of their time on Timor Mary and friends had been under control of the cruel Captain Edward Edwards RN of HMS Pandora. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

‘I [Tench] could not but reflect with admiration at the strange combination of circumstances which had again brought us together, to baffle human foresight and confound human speculation’.

It would be an understatement to say Captain Watkin Tench was gob-smacked when the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’ arrived at Cape Town, nor can there be doubt he related emotionally to their story of ‘hardship and difficulty’.

The newcomers taken from Hoonwey and Vreedenberg joined Mary and Charlotte on HMS Gorgan.  One James Martin, a tall dark-haired Irishman, wrote ‘we was well known by all the marine officers which was all glad that we have not perished at sea’.

1792 – 6 April, Africa: HMS Gorgan sailed from Cape Town for England with Mary, Charlotte and friends in April 1792. Mary Bryant had yet to face her worst nightmare. On the previous leg – Sydney to Cape Town – ice and cold had been the enemy  now, out of Africa towards England, it was ‘excessive heat’.

Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark wrote; ‘hot as hell…playing the devil with the children’.

Clark was not a disinterested observer he travelled with ex-convict Mary Branham his common-law wife and Alicia, their 18 months old daughter (named for Clark’s legal wife), together with William, Mary’s four (4) year old son, from a previous liaison. See: Clue of the Scarlet Cloth

1792 – 2 May, at sea:  Ralph Clark recorded the death of five (5) children; ‘the children are going very fast…another died on the 4th May, another on the 5th’ .

1792 – 6 May:  At 4 am on 6 May 6 Charlotte died in Mary’s arms, Clark attributed the toddler’s death to ‘excessive heat’; by the middle of the month two (2) marine wives and nine (9) more children were dead.

1792 – 18  June, England: Gorgan reached Portsmouth on 18 June 1792, from where five (5) years earlier – 13 May 1787 – convict Mary Bryant (Braund) guarded by officers and men of the Sydney Garrison, sailed for Botany Bay.

1792 – 20 June, Newgate Prison: Mary with the four (4) surviving escapees were taken off Gorgan and lodged in Newgate gaol. They appeared before magistrate Nicholas Bond where Captain Edwards identified them as the ‘Botany Bay escapees’ he had arrested on Timor.

1792 – 7 July, Old Bailey: All were charged with return ‘before expiry of sentence’ and remanded in custody to appear at the Old Bailey on 7 July 1792.

Under the Transportation Act Geo. I (1717[18] being found ‘at large within the kingdom before expiry’ attracted mandatory death. Mary now a childless widow was desolate. She was however not without friends.

It is not clear who – if anyone – approached James Boswell to defend the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’. Their extraordinary story alone may have aroused Boswell’s interest linked as it was to the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and wreck of HMS Pandora.

Certainly sensational stories of tyrannical Captain William Bligh RN, mutinous Lieutenant Fletcher Christian RN and cruel Captain Edward Edwards RN and the horrors of ‘Pandora’s Box’, filled London and provincial newspapers.

Boswell’s motivation may have sprung directly from these accounts. But it is also possible an interested party – Captain Watkin Tench – soon to publish his second Botany Bay book- Sydney’s First Four Years – may have prompted Boswell’s interest. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’.

There is however another possibility. HMS Gorgan had on board an object of ‘genius’ on its journey home to Greenwich Observatory where it resides to this day. See: Lieutenant William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame’    

EPILOGUE

In 2010 Mary Ann Parker’s A Voyage Round the World in the Gorgon Man of War was reprinted by Cambridge University Press. Parker’s book is an important addition to the canon of early women’s travel writing’.

Widowed in 1795 Mary wrote to support her family. Her observations give valuable insight into social divisions already glaringly obvious at the time of Gorgan’s Sydney’s visit – March 1791.

These divisions centred initially on Lieutenant John Macarthur of the  New South Wales Infantry Corps who, together with Elizabeth his wife, arrived in June 1790 on the second fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’.

Prejudice: Elizabeth’s attitude towards Mary Johnson, wife of ‘First Fleet’ Chaplain Richard Johnson, the only other woman of similar ‘station’ in the tiny colony, was sickening; ‘a person in whose society I could reap neither profit nor pleasure’. Early Records of the Macarthurs

Pride: John Macarthur’s pride was boundless, his ‘pipes’ most scurrilous.

‘Rumour is a pipe Blown by surmises, Jealousy’s conjectures’. Henry IV, William Shakespeare. See: Machiavellian Macarthur

 

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